In a time of global pandemic, historic spending, and an oncoming climate crisis, the youth of today are barreling towards an uncertain future. Yet young voices are often underrepresented and alienated from the systems of power which influence how we tackle this future.
- Alfred Burgesson and I met in 2017 at the UN Active Citizens Social Enterprise Summit in Ottawa where I was the photographer and he a participant. We reconnected over Nouvelle and his new project, Collective action. I felt that his inspiring story and meaningful advice for young change-makers would make him the perfect first guest for our new “In-Conversation” series.
Alfred is a 23-year-old Ghanaian born Canadian. He currently works as a project lead at the Centre for Employment Innovation in Nova Scotia & is a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth council.
- He joined Nouvelle’s Co-founder Tristan Oliff in conversation to discuss how youth can affect positive change.
- He shares his perspective on how social action can take place both within and outside the seats of power.
- The story culminates with his advice for young Canadians who seek to involve themselves in social and political action.
Alfred’s journey into social and political action started in 2017 when he interned with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) – a national governing body for Indigenous peoples in Canada. While he was not on the “front lines of that organization” he was in the background of many conversations and meetings
That was my first introduction into working with a group that was trying to advocate for better opportunities, better access and justice... I learned a lot about Indigenous history during that time that I didn’t learn in school and got to spend a lot of time with Mi’kmaq elders and youth.
Tristan: From being within those circles and involved with that sort of political action, I’m curious to know what you learnt about the process of facilitating socio-political change and how it shaped you as someone who wants to be a change builder.
Indigenous people have faced a lot of injustice. What I was impressed by, being with them, was for them to be so gracious in the way they approached the conversations with white decision-makers and how inviting they were to partner & collaborate with these individuals.
They did it in a very diplomatic way, they would always invite folks to join their ceremonies, always talked about being on a journey of healing and moving from statements around reconciliation to truly walking side by side and working in action together.
I got a taste of being in an environment where folks didn’t just want to talk, they also wanted to truly exemplify what reconciliation actually was.
From that experience, I saw that the indigenous folks valued the process more than the outcome. When they were making demands for changes, the process was the most important part of it.
After his experience with the AFN and having gained “a better understanding of what Canada was and how Canada was”, Alfred took a lot more interest in regional development, looking for more opportunities to be present in rooms where discussions about development were being had.
- The following year, after collaborating with organizations such as Nike and NBA Canada, Alfred began another internship with a regionally focused public relations firm.
This allowed me to explore and experience different aspects of public relations – including public engagement, marketing, advertising, government and investor relations, stakeholder management.
It really opened my eyes to who the different players were within our region and what they were hoping to do in our region.
- Shortly after that, Alfred took a position as a program lead on a project called Future City Builders which sought to provide youth with an opportunity to find solutions to local issues.
Through that experience, I got to mobilize youth in the city, and I got to lean on my experience from the public relations firm when it came to reaching out to potential partners of the program, whether grassroots community organizations or the government who we thought would be an important partner in that project.
That really allowed me to mobilize youth in Halifax, and it led to 30 youths standing in city hall presenting their solutions for housing in the city. I think that was an opportunity that provided an incredible amount of learning.
- Leading out of the Future City Builder’s lab, Alfred started to work with a non-for-profit, Engage Nova Scotia, that was leading quality of life research around well-being.
That experience opened up my world to a different vocabulary around what are we measuring. When it comes to how we measure our success in the world, are we measuring economic indicators, or are we measuring indicators that are related to the quality of life and well-being.
- Finally, Alfred moved onto working with a Crown Corporation called Develop Nova Scotia which sought to develop inclusive infrastructure across Nova Scotia that would support economic growth as well as the quality of life.
“In the middle of that experience, I was accepted and appointed to the Prime Ministers youth council.“
Tristan: You’ve mentioned a few times that a big part of this journey was that it led you to the Prime Minister’s youth council (PMYC). I’d love to hear about that experience, how it came to be and in practice, how you were able to go about advising the Prime Minister from the perspective of the youth?
I applied probably a year before I was accepted. The PMYC is an advisory board of youth aged 16-24 who are there to provide non-partisan advice and cover every territory.
In a typical year, we have four to five in-person gatherings where the Prime Minister is present along with online gatherings where council members can have formal or informal conversations where we’re providing input or sharing our experience.
Tristan: So I would think that you came into the council with different aspects of Canadian culture that you wanted to represent. Has it felt that there were certain ideas or movements that you wanted to empower through your position in the council?
From the jump, I was interested in how we get other young people in Canada to know that our voices are at a federal table, and we get them engaged so that when we come to that table, we are considering the voices of youth who are not in the room.
On top of that, while I felt privileged to have the seat at the table, my questions were; how do we invite more people into the room? How do we consider their opinions when implementing and considering programs?
Tristan: That’s a great thread to follow on. I’d love to know, as a young person involved in political action, what do you think youth does bring to the table? What kind of perspectives can we provide to the Prime Minister that he doesn’t get when he’s sitting in Parliament or being engaged by the private sector?
I think the youth bring experience, especially when discussing subject matters that are about us.
If we are creating programs for youth, we need to value their experiences, their perspectives and their wishes. We have to ask them the question: what opportunities do they want to have?
If we’re not asking that question when developing new programs, then we’re not valuing them. We may be creating solutions to problems that we have no experience solving.
I think more practically, we bring a fresh lens to issues – youth are a lot more open and curious to explore tough conversations about things such as equity.
Tristan: Throughout this conversation, we’ve heard you talk about your experiences in all the different sectors of political action, from the local level, private sector, to First Nations governance, to now the federal level.
- So my question here is: Being someone who was at that table and was able to recommend specific actions or change and see it sometimes impact decision making and sometimes not, I’d love to know from your perspective, how much of our youth movement to build a better future can take place within the systems of power?
These systems of power definitely have influence and can take in perspectives and implement change. Change is possible there, but if we don’t allow the young people to provide tangible solutions to the issues that we face, then we’re limiting our impact. We’re limiting our possibilities.
We had so many young people take to the streets for climate movements and Black Lives Matter, but are we creating spaces to ask them what changes need to be made?
Are we valuing their passion within our systems of power?
The answer is probably no because we’re not posing the questions and inviting them forwards with ideas, solutions and answers.
While now more than ever young people are taking to the street, we also need to get organized and get in dialogue with our decision-makers.
I think we can do that by having very targeted and intentional online campaigns where we increase dialogue with elective officials and representatives at all levels.
Tristan: That’s a great segue into talking about the project you’ve been working on which in part is born out of these discussions of how do we get the collective voice of young people engaged in political action, and how do we show those systems of power what is on the minds of young people.
- So tell us more about this project you’ve been working on: Collective Action
Collective action is an example of trying to better organize change, trying to create a channel that can improve and increase participation within our democracy.
We have created a website that can host multiple different campaigns and these campaigns can be customizable and directly targeted at organizations and people in power.
What’s different about collective action is that it’s about demanding change from those who can influence it.
I’m hoping that collective action can play a role in having the voice of citizens heard. If the masses are receptive to taking collective action, that that could really send a powerful message to our decision-makers that we want action, we want change and we’ve come with a set of solutions that can help influence that action and change.
Tristan: As a closing question, what is some of the advice that you would want to give to other youth who want to get involved and take action?
Firstly, I think one of the issues we have is that we should try to make those tables more diverse and reflective of the people they are trying to serve.
I would definitely encourage young people to look at applying on agencies, boards and commissions in your local areas. That is a place you can start and enter the room and hear what is going on and provide your perspective on matters that are impacting your life.
Take a look if your local area town or municipality or city have a youth council. Do they have youth on their public boards? If not, then speak up about it and call for change and for space to be made for youth at that table.
The next thing is that you definitely want to experiment and explore initiatives that you are passionate about.
If there is something on your mind that is eating at you, turn that into a passion project. What I mean by that is take it from a worry or an idea and develop it into something that can impact others or impact your local region in a positive way.
You can do that alone, but you can also do that with a coalition of individuals who have the same cause or passion that you do. In this era of COVID, youth are struggling with employment. This is a really good opportunity to take a passion of yours and explore implementing a project.
Do what I did, after you have identified your passion project, create a concept that can be actioned, which you can share with a network of friends or people who believe in a cause, or you can share that with organizations which maybe have an aligned mandate, and get their perspective on it.
Finally, know that you can’t do it alone, your passion project is yours and you definitely need to own it and nurture it. But at some point, you have to bring it to the world because other people probably have a similar passion or issue that they are trying to solve.
Tristan: This is a beautiful way to close this conversation. The most powerful aspect that the youth today possess is our interconnections and our sense of community with one another. I think that moving forwards as we try to answer these questions about a better future and make sure our voices are better represented, that we work together and we find solidarity in being able to work with one another to build that better future.
So thank you very much Alfred Burgesson for joining us in conversation today, and for sharing your journey and inspiring us to come together in collective action.
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